The Visual Brain and the Straight Line

The Courtauld Institute of Art

Caroline Villers Research Fellowship Lecture: How our Visual Brains Interpret Painted Lines

Tuesday, 4 February 2014, Dr Pia Gottschaller (Caroline Villers Research Fellow 2012-13)

Reflecting the focus of the Caroline Villers research fellowship, Pia Gotschaller’s work is mainly focused on technical art history. Her interests are decidedly modern, ranging from Lucio Fontana to Bridget Riley. Influenced by the work of Semir Zeki in the field of neuroaesthetics (the use of neuroscience to understand aesthetic experiences at the neurological level), Dr. Gotschaller’s research explores both art and the brain. The lecture examined how the visual brain interprets straight lines, demonstrating that there is nothing simple in them, and in their usual association with light, science, and human intelligence.

The lecture’s opening slide was Richard Hamilton emphatically figurative Swingeing London. These were contrasted with details from the geometrical paintings of Barnett Newman, Ed Ruscha and Mark Rothko.

The speaker showed that ‘straight’ is the geometry of a crystal, or, in the 2012 film Prometheus, the ‘good guys.’ And yet, the real straight line – without depth or width – is only a mathematical abstraction. In human terms, the difference between the straight and the crooked is only one of degree. Whereas some artists used straight lines for their perceived semantic neutrality, others employed them to symbolise the machine aesthetic.

Straight lines as described by Dr. Gotschaller are not drawn with the help of pencil, but rather with masking tape. So that the history of the art she considers starts in 1935, the year when this type of tape became widely available. Using masking tape poses specific handling problems. For example, paint can bleed under the tape, transforming the most rigid of lines into a soft and wavy blur. Can viewers eventually tell that this hazy line was meant as straight? Or is the difference between the masking tape and the hand-drawn lines the expert’s call?

Dr. Gotschaller devised an experiment to answer this question. Her sample was a group of 40 interviewees, divided between experts – art historians, conservators and artists – and ‘non-experts’ – for example, bankers. Shown details of lines from modern paintings in quick successions, the participants had to instinctively differentiate hand-drawn from straight lines.

The images selected by Dr. Gotschaller were clearly bisected by a vertical or horizontal line. In fact, recent experiments have demonstrated that brain cells cannot interpret horizontal lines as easily as perpendicular ones. She also selected images where different colours created clear divisions. As she noted, the brain tends to interpret lines as ‘hedges’ between areas. Our eyes never fixate on monochromatic expanses, but rather concentrate on points of rupture and change, thus helping the viewer to focus on the line dividing different colour fields.

Surprisingly, both experts and non-experts scored high in Dr. Gotschaller’s test. When reading an artwork, we rely as much on our experiences of a messy children’s art project as on our formal training in higher education. Thus, the test highlighted the importance of ‘tacit knowledge’: as the philosopher Michael Polanyi explained in 1966, ‘we can know more than we can tell.’

Two days after this talk, my ‘Russian Constructivism’ class met for a seminar at Tate Modern. It is among the geometrical paintings of Tate’s Structure and Clarity Gallery that I realised how inspiring Dr. Gotschaller’s talk was, and how useful her exhortation to ‘look closer’ at every straight line will be in my future studies.

Caroline Villers Research Fellowship Lecture – ‘Masking Tape: From Innovators to Early Adopters and Majority Groups’

Dr Pia Gotschaller presented her most recent findings on the history and use of masking tape in modern and contemporary art on Thursday 9 May in the Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre. This lecture was the second of a three part series on the subject, as Dr Gotschaller continues her research as the Caroline Villers Research Fellow.

The terminology of the title, ‘Masking Tape: From Innovators to Early Adopters and Majority Groups,’ is borrowed from innovation theory used by product developers. Although Dr Gotschaller was not aligning her research with this theory, it was useful as a framework to understand how products are initially developed and then how people begin using these products in their daily lives. Innovators and early adopters are the first two groups to test out new products, so Dr Gotschaller borrowed this concept and applied it to artists using masking tape in their practice. Before determining who these artistic innovators and early adopters might be, it was first necessary to research the history of pressure-sensitive tape manufacture. By establishing a timeline of its development, she could then work with this chronology to see which artistic practices coincided with the product as it developed. Moreover, research of tape’s manufacture enabled a better understanding of its materiality, which provided valuable insight into the specific results the product yielded.

Dr Gotschaller then shifted her discussion to artists using masking tape in the 1930s and 1940s, including Piet Mondrian, Harry Holtzman, Charles Shaw, and Max Bill, describing the varying ways they employed pressure-sensitive tapes. For instance, while Mondrian only used masking tape to plan his De Stijl grids, tracing his compositional arrangements in charcoal before painting, Max Bill opted for Scotch magic tape for its compatibility with oil paint.

While artists working with masking tape in the late thirties and into the early forties could be considered the product’s innovators, many Concrete and Neo-Concrete artists in South America could then be described as early adopters. It is likely that these artists were exposed to Bill’s work in the 1950s when he exhibited in Brazil and consequently incorporated pressure-sensitive tape into their practices. A recent exhibition in Madrid, Concrete Invention, brought together the work of many of these Argentinean, Brazilian, and Venezuelan artists, along with works by Albers, Bill, and Mondrian, so that Dr Gotschaller could compare works of those artists who used tape and those who did not.

The next phase of research for Dr Gotschaller and her team will entail testing individuals’ perceptions of paintings made with masking tape and those made without, the hypothesis being that people will be able to tell with relative certainty which method an artist used. This then calls into question what the further implications of using masking tape, the motivations of its innovators and early adopters, and the almost subconscious aesthetic effect of mechanistically straight lines in relation to growing urbanism and Modernism itself. But for now, research remains in its initial stages, exploring and discovering the process of artists who used an everyday material that we often take for granted.